Panthers' Schwartz at home coaching pitchers at Fort Mill

04/17/2011 12:00 AM

04/16/2011 9:23 PM

It took Fort Mill way longer to find a pair of uniform pants to fit Geoff Schwartz than it took him to find Fort Mill.

But three years later, the bond between the NFL offensive lineman and the high school baseball team has grown so strong that spending more than an hour driving back and forth each day isn't enough to break them up.

Schwartz, the Carolina Panthers tackle, has been volunteering as a pitching coach for the Yellow Jackets, and offering a unique perspective. He's not just the biggest assistant coach in the region, he can offer the high schoolers practical advice on how to succeed in sports, while being close enough to their age to act as a go-between with the other coaches.

"I love these guys," Schwartz said. "Working with them the last few seasons, I've gotten an opportunity to do something I enjoy, and get close to a lot of great people in the process."

Seeing him laugh and joke with the players now, and it strikes you how accidental his arriving here was.

Chosen in the seventh round of the 2008 draft out of Oregon, the Los Angeles-area native found himself far from home, with not enough to do to fill the hours not spent on football. So while noodling around on his computer one afternoon at his Steele Creek home, he did some exhaustive research to find the perfect fit for his coaching expertise.

"I literally typed 'high school,' into Google, and Fort Mill was the first one to pop up," Schwartz said with a laugh. "So I emailed the athletic director to see if they needed any help, and they told me to come on down."

Fort Mill coach Brad Mercer said he was happy to have the help, and quickly found out that Schwartz was more than just a bored football player.

The Panthers blocker had been a three-sport star at Palisades Charter High School outside L.A., and put up some impressive numbers as a pitcher then. He had a 13-6 record with four saves and 130 strikeouts over his final two years, and came painfully close to achieving every Southern California kid's dream of pitching in Dodgers Stadium.

His school advanced to the finals of the city tournament his junior season, but having recorded two wins and a save in the previous three tournament games, Schwartz wasn't able to start the final at Chavez Ravine. The intention was to get him some relief work in late, but when Palisades won a mercy shortened 10-run game over Granada Hills, he missed out on the chance to take the same mound Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale had worked from.

Even for a San Francisco Giants fan, that was tough.

"I know, as much as I hate the Dodgers, that would have been awesome," Schwartz said. "No matter what you think of the team, that field is great, that playing surface is probably the best in baseball."

By his senior year, his stature began to dictate that football was probably his best path to get to the professional level. While he went to Oregon on football scholarship, he played in an amateur baseball league during the offseason. But as years passed, his ability to protect passers and clear lanes for running backs including teammate Jonathan Stewart had him put his diamond dreams aside.

He spent his rookie year with the Panthers on the practice squad, and started three games in 2009, but started all 16 last year, shifting between guard and tackle when injuries sapped their depth.

Once the spring rolls around, however, he's back, despite it taking a little longer to get to practices and games. Schwartz moved closer to downtown Charlotte, and it's at least a half hour one-way from his home in the Plaza Midwood neighborhood. He had chances to work at schools that wouldn't require such a commute, but said there was no chance he was turning his back on the state's top-ranked Class AAA team.

The 24-year-old Schwartz also works well with the teenagers, enjoying an easy rapport with the kids. Prior to Friday's JV game, he joked with players, struggling to make his new camouflage cap fit.

Players look up to him in part because he's giant, but he said their initial fascination with his day job has waned, and now he's simply another coach.

"Players can come to me and say things they might not say to other coaches," he said. "Maybe it's because I'm closer to them in age, but guys just feel more comfortable around me."

Mercer said Schwartz's NFL status gives him a certain athletic credibility, but the anonymous nature of his job on the offensive line means he can't just be the big-shot who parachutes in from time to time.

"The kids really respect him because of his status, but that would only go so far," Mercer said. "They've found out that he's really knowledgeable about the game, and knows what it takes to get to the next level.

"You don't come by a professional athlete too often who will do what he does every day, because a lot of guys aren't up for the time commitment he was willing to make."

Of course, his mass lends to the respect he earns around a baseball field.

Schwartz is already big by NFL standards. But that size also created one of his first coaching challenges. Fort Mill didn't have anything approaching uniform pants to fit him. While you'll occasionally see a high school coach nearing the 330-pound range, very few of them are also 6-foot-6.

So for his first few weeks on the job, Schwartz wore sweat pants that were a close match, just to look like the rest of them. But one night a persnickety umpire instructed Mercer that Schwartz could not visit the mound since he wasn't in a proper uniform.

"The ump came to me and said, 'You can't let him go out there dressed like that,' Mercer recalled with a laugh. "I told that ump, 'Look at the size of that guy, you go tell him, ..."

Schwartz estimates he's heard that story "probably a hundred or so times," but said Mercer has the ability to keep it fresh by "changing up the nuances," each time.

They eventually special-ordered a pair of uniform pants to allow him to do his job within the rules.

And it's a good thing, because it's clear from watching him work with players, that he and the Fort Mill baseball team are a perfect fit.

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